Getting noticed in 5778

When I was in rabbinical school, living in New York City, I did all the things people in New York City do in their 20s:  I visited the Empire State Building, I visited Central Park, and, of course, I joined jDate.

All told, I must have spent about a year on the website.  I went on a handful of first dates, met people from all over Manhattan, and read a few profiles, a few hundred profiles.

From time to time, I would come across my friends’ profiles.  Sometimes I thought their descriptions were spot on:  interested in Talmud, enjoys cooking, kind of nerdy.  Sometimes they weren’t so accurate:   Super outgoing?  I don’t think so.  Athletic? Not by any definition I know.  5‘10” – please.

In the world of online dating, you have to get noticed.

It is imperative that you use certain buzz words or phrases.  A recent survey showed that profiles that contain the words: surfing, yoga, or athletic tend to get more favorable results. And since a picture is worth 1,000 words, you need to select the right pictures.  A smiling photo while being adventurous, a wide-grinned photo wearing something fancy, and of course, a silly picture while on vacation in an exotic location.

All with the hopes of getting noticed.

My friends, whether in the dating world, the business world, or simply while walking down the street, deep down, more than anything, I think that we all desire to be noticed.  Not necessarily to be seen or idolized; but to be recognized and valued for who we are.

There is nothing more terrible than feeling invisible. undervalued, ignored.

This fear is so universal, so ubiquitous, that it not only permeates our inner souls, but those of our neighbors too.   It is  demonstrated by our biblical ancestors and even by God.

The fear is demonstrated by the first sibling, Cain, who strikes his brother Abel, after feeling that his offering was not valued by God.

In yesterday’s Torah reading, we read that Sarah, perhaps feeling overshadowed by her more fertile handmaiden, Hagar, mistreats her and casts her out of the house along with her son so that she may once again be seen by her husband, Avraham.

Later on we read how Hagar, now homeless, on the run, having run out of water, sits a few feet away from her dying child, desperate to be noticed by someone who will offer help.

Two times, and only two times in the Torah, something is described as, lo tov, not good.

During the creation story, after creating the plants and animals and first earthling, God looks at Adam and states:

יח  וַיֹּאמֶר יְה-וָה אֱ-לֹהִים, לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ; אֶעֱשֶׂה-לּוֹ עֵזֶר, כְּנֶגְדּוֹ.

18 And the LORD God said: ‘It is not good that the earthling should be alone; I will make him a partner.’

But Adam wasn’t really alone, after all, he was surrounded by plants, animals, angels, and even God.  Godself was in the garden with Adam.  But not even God’s company was sufficient.  Adam needed someone more like himself to connect with.  Adam needed a peer.

Later in the book of Shemot, in parashat Yitro, after the revelation at Sinai, after seeing how Moses would preside over legal cases between the Israelites from sunrise to sunset, Moshe’s father-in-law states:

יז… לֹא-טוֹב, הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה, עֹשֶׂה

17 …‘The thing you are doing is not good.’

According to Yitro, undertaking an important task by oneself is not the right way to perform sacred work.  For Moshe, not being able to identify or see the merit in working with others is also not good.

Lo Tov to be alone;

Lo Tov to act as if you are alone.

Not only is isolation bad for humans, God, too, sometimes goes unnoticed.

Our ancestor, Jacob spends the night sleeping with his head on a stone and only after he wakes up he proclaims:

אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְה-וָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי

16 ‘Surely God is in this place; and I hadn’t noticed.’

.But perhaps most profoundly, not only do we sometimes not notice God, but that God is pained by that lack of attention.

In his Between God and Man, 20th century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

God’s need is a self-imposed concern.  God is now in need of man, because God freely made him a partner in his enterprise, ‘a partner in the work of creation.’  From the first day of creation the Holy One, blessed be He, longed to enter into partnership with the terrestrial world to dwell with His creatures within the terrestrial world….”  The Midrash remarked: “In the view of Rabbi Johanan we need God’s honor; in the view of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish God needs our honor.

No one is immune to wanting to be noticed.

So how does one become noticed?  How does one make their presence known?  By noticing others.

I am sure that we have all heard the teaching that we are created in God’s image, that we all have a spark of the divine in us.  And yet, we sometimes fail to see it in others.  So, how can we hone our vision and discipline ourselves to notice that spark in our daily actions?

This morning I offer two powerful spiritual practices that have enabled me to improve, not perfect, but improve, my ability to see others.  Again, they are simple, but they have transformed mundane interactions into sacred moments for me.

Pirke Avot 1:15 teaches:

שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר…מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

“Shammai says…receive every person with a pleasant disposition.”

Not your friends, not the people you know, kol ha-adam, every person, with a cheerful disposition.

My dad Isaac and me at the NASCAR race in Loudon, NH
My dad and me at the NASCAR race in Loudon, NH

My father embodies this approach.  My dad has worked in downtown Miami as a diamond-setter for the past forty years.  It is not an exaggeration to state that he knows nearly everyone.  As a kid, I quickly learned that even if we left his store at 12:00 to get lunch, we wouldn’t actually get to the restaurant that was a block away for at least half an hour because he would greet everyone along the way.

The passing of each window or group of guys resulted in a loud sing-song greeting in Spanish: ¡Hector!, ¡Roman!, ¡Buenas Tardes! (Good Afternoon!), ¡Buena Jente! (Good People! ); – it sounded like a professor taking attendance in a 300-student lecture hall.

But every interaction made the other smile, no one was beyond my father’s cheerful greeting, even the homeless got a hello!  Everyone was noticed on the way to lunch.  And so, they noticed my father.

I try to do the same.

In a world that is increasingly more isolated and where our worldviews are limited to the size of our smartphone screens, I treasure these daily interactions with strangers and people I know.

I have made it a point to not use my phone when I check out at the supermarket.  In fact, I almost awkwardly, deliberately, try to make eye contact while I check out so I can meet new people and turn an isolationist experience into an encounter.

I’ve exchanged recipes based on what people have in their cart, talked sports, explained why I look so tired, and, I kid you not, I’ve been tracked down in the parking lot of Wegmans by a person I met inside who said what a treat it was to chat with someone instead of quietly waiting for his turn to pay.

I’d like to formalize this process.  I’d love to find a way for supermarkets and stores to have dedicated screen-free lines for people who want to interact with others.

Living so close to the shul, I often walk to work, greeting people along the way.  This morning, while I was on my way to shul, a neighbor, not Jewish,  was getting into his car to go to work.  As his car approached, he slowed down, stopped the car next to me, down the window, and said, “Hi Michael, Happy New Year to you and your entire community.  I hope it is a year of blessing for your family, for your community, and for all of us.”  With that, he rolled the window up and went to work.  Talk about getting noticed.

The power of the greeting is also told in Joseph Telushkin’s The Book of Jewish Values.  A story of  a Hassidic rabbi who lived in Danzig in the 1930s.  He was known to greet everyone on the street and knew everyone in his community by name.  In the fields near the town, there was a farmer whom he used to pass.

“Good morning, Herr Mueller,” he would greet him.

“Good morning, Herr Rabbiner,” the man would respond.

When World War II erupted, the rabbi’s walks stopped, while Herr Mueller left his fields and joined the SS. After losing his family at the Treblinka death camp, the Rabbi himself was deported to Auschwitz.

One day a selection occurred during which all the Jewish inmates had to pass in front of a Nazi officer, who signaled some people to go left, to the gas chambers, and others to go right, to a life of slave labor.

By this time, the Rabbi, who had long suffered from starvation and disease, already looked like a skeleton. As the line moved forward, the voice directing people to the right and to the left started to sound familiar. Soon the Rabbi could see the face of the man who was sending people to their life or death.

As he stood in front of the officer, he heard himself saying, “Good morning, Herr Mueller.”  “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner,” the man responded, “What are you doing here?” Saying nothing, the Rabbi smiled faintly.

Seconds later, Herr Mueller lifted his baton and signaled the Rabbi to go to the right, to life. A day later he was transferred to a safer camp, and survived the war.

The Rabbi lived into his 80s and in an interview said of the situation, this is the power of a good morning greeting.

A second spiritual practice that helps remind me of the infinite worth of each individual relates to how I schedule my day.

Despite being Hispanic and having Jewish roots, I aspire to be perpetually punctual.  Obviously there are exceptions and people need a little wiggle-room, but by and large, I am notoriously, unapologetically, punctual.

While in rabbinical school, working at my synagogue in the Bronx, yes, the one with fewer than 15 members, I would start services at 9:30 AM regardless of who was in the room.   Shayna once caught me calling page numbers to an empty room.  “Who are you talking to,” she asked.  “We turn to page 83 for P’sukei D’zimra,” I responded.

While some may see being punctual as simply good manners, for me it has turned into a spiritual practice.  Despite one’s wealth or social status, we all have a finite amount of time in a day and can’t replace the time that was misused.  No one would steal their neighbor’s car or bicycle, why steal their time?

Jewish teachings regard wasting another person’s time as a kind of theft. Again, as redacted in The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Abraham Twersky tells a characteristic story about Rabbi Abraham Karelitz, the great 19th century scholar known as the Hazon Ish. He once assembled a minyan in his home for minhah, and one of the people told him that he was due at an appointment shortly thereafter. The rabbi sent him on his way, stating that keeping the other person waiting was theft of time, and one cannot pray on stolen time.

There is also a practical aspect to punctuality.

A 2002 article in USA Today discussed the cost of tardiness for CEOs. One hypothetical example: If Sanford Weill, at the time the CEO of Citigroup, arrives 15 minutes late to a meeting with his four best-paid lieutenants, it costs the company $4,250.00, the price of the four employees’ time.

This article was published over 10 years ago – what would that price be today!

What would it look like if everyone at Temple Emunah embraced these two spiritual practices?

How would it impact the social dynamics of our shul?

What would it look like if you really challenged yourself to say hello to nearly everyone?

What would it feel like if people were more mindful of how they used your time?

This past Shabbat, a new member approached me and asked if there were people in their age demographic at this shul.  I answered that there were, but to be cautious, that age alone is not the determining factor of who you can chat with at kiddush.

  • Retirees shouldn’t only speak with retirees,
  • parents shouldn’t only speak with other parents,
  • kids shouldn’t only speak with kids,
  • and the engineers shouldn’t only speak with the engineers – although often they are the only ones who understand each other.

As the story of Adam teaches, we need to be in the presence of people who are like us.  But we also need to understand, like Yitro, that people who are different from us can be partners in a beautiful friendship.

To be even more clear, if you don’t just say hello, you end up missing out on some of the pretty incredible people here at Emunah.

You might miss out on meeting:

  • Lawyers who are at the forefront of resettling and fighting for the rights of refugees;
  • Scientists who are leading the fight to discover cures for fatal diseases like sepsis and cancer;
  • Engineers who are crafting green solutions to our world’s problems;
  • Parents who work at home and can lend advice on raising children in an ever more complicated world.

You miss out on hearing incredible stories from:

  • Couples who have been married for over 30, 40, 50, and even 60 years;
  • Veterans who fought in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, and in Desert Storm;
  • Musicians and actors who have traveled the country and the world.

You don’t gain the wisdom of people who have:

  • Struggled with infertility;
  • Dealt with mental illness in their family;
  • Already juggled the eventualities that happen to all of us:
    • Losing a job
    • Dealing with serious illness
    • The loss of a loved one

By not noticing the other, you miss out on the chance of being noticed yourself.

The Talmud records that God created the world with one person so that we may each say that each person is their own world.  Each person is an ecosystem of thoughts, experiences, ideas, and feelings.  If each person is their own world, then think of how much of these worlds we each haven’t seen yet, how much exploring remains to be done.

In the new year, in 5778, let us notice and start exploring these uncharted worlds that are sitting right next to us.

Shanah Tovah

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Mauricio Fel is proud to serve as the Rabbi of Temple Emunah. Originally from Miami, Florida, Rabbi Fel is fluent in Spanish, loves woodworking, and hiking.